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Review: John Santos & The Machete Ensemble

by Steven Seftel

Afro-Latin jazz lovers have been enjoying the Machete Ensemble on CD since 1988, when Africa, Vol.1 was released. We've been since awaiting a Vol. 2 and, now that Xenophile has released Machete, our patience has been very generously rewarded. Musical director, producer, and percussionist John Santos leads the Machete Ensemble through a very broad range of inspirational and improvisational music accompanied by 20 guest musicians, among them such legends as 'Cachao' Lopez, 'Chocolate' Armenteros, and Orestes Vilató.

The diversity of music contained on this disc covers a wider than average scope of Afro-Latin music, which is, in part, the result of combining various aspects of African and Cuban styles together. Adding jazz influences to this creates a sound that, rather than being diluted or confusing, comes across sounding fresh, innovative, and purely Machete. The song list is complete with genre descriptions, most being a blend of two styles not generally heard together, such as Ñongo-descarga; Arará-funk; Batá-jazz; etc.

Instrumental pieces are interspersed amongst the vocal tunes so that, listening to this disc, one is not overwhelmed by too many lyrics. Nor is the mind left to wander on the 5 instrumental tracks, especially since the tasteful solos seem to be singing on their own as well. This may be due in part to the fact that most of the instrumental tunes are each expressing a particular concept or dedication. "Modupue" ("Thank You" in Yoruba) is probably my favorite of the instrumentals because of the uncommon but harmonious marriage of Batá drums and rhythms providing the foundation for straightforward jazz and Latin jazz licks courtesy of Rebecca Mauleon, 'Chocolate;' Armenteros, Orestes Vilató, etc.

The recording mix is well balanced, with each instrument always audible. Too often on Latin jazz albums great percussionists are mixed down to make more headway for the brass and keyboards, but thankfully, John Santos, Orestes Vilató, Anthony Carillo and friends are given respectable recording levels.

Besides jazz, other U.S. influences include a bit of soul and funk. The vocals are always fresh, thanks to two female and three male lead singers. Especially powerful is the hauntingly beautiful voice of Lakiba Pittman, singing in Yoruba a song dedicated to Oshún. Lyrics in Yoruba, Spanish and English mesh nicely and never seem out of place, even within the same song. Most of the lyrical content is relevant and conscious on a social and religious level. One greatly composed song features Cachao paying tribute to the són, and another paying homage to Orestes Vilató, which begins with a bembé in tribute to the Orisha 'Ochosi', then instantly transforms into a guaracha throughout which Orestes himself weaves solos throughout, until the rhythm switches just as quickly back to the bembé to close the song.

The liner notes and song descriptions, are a mini-encyclopedia in themselves, providing background not only of guest musicians and history of Latin music genres, but also of the Orisha religion and its development and influence from Africa to Cuba, and more recently to California's Bay Area, which is home to the Machete Ensemble. If you enjoy this disc, Machete members can also be heard on the new Conjunto Céspedes disc, Vivito y Coleando, and the re-release of Orquesta Batachanga's Mañana Para Los Niños.

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